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Archive for April, 2008

The story of the elder Mahāmitta:

The elder Mahāmitta, as they say, dwelled in the “plougher cave”. Close to the cave was a little village where he went for alms. An old lady cared for him like her own son and was serving him food when he came begging for alms. One day she went into the forest with her daughter and told her:

“My dear, tomorrow i will prepare a special meal, made from rice, milk, molasse and palm sugar. Having prepared it i will offer it to our dear monk Mitta, and you shall have some too, i will just eat the left-over with sour gruel.” – “But dear mother, what will be left for you to eat during the day?” – “A leaf soup is all that will be necessary for me, my dear.”

Now it so happened that the elder had dressed in his robes taken his alms bowl and was on his way to the village when he on his way trough the forest walking towards the village overheard their conversation.

“This great Upasika (lay devotee) is content with a sour gruel while she reserves the fine rice for me. During the day she lives on a leaf soup! And she does not give because she longs for material gains like property, dresses, food or riches. No, she gives because she hopes to attain to the three attainments of Nibbana (stream entry, once return and no-return). Can you, Mitta, help her gain those attainments or do you not? You can definitely not help her gain those attainments if you receive her food with your own mind still bound by lust, hatred and delusion.”

With that thought he put back his alms bowl into its pouch, loosened the robe strap and went back to his cave. He stowed the bowl under his wooden bed frame, hung the upper robe over the robe bar and said: “I will not leave this place before i have not attained to Arahantship“. Thus he sat down declaring his determination.

The whole night he spent with intense alertness as a humble begger-monk (bhikkhu) developing his insight and attained to Arahantship in the early morning of the following day.

Like a slowly opening lotus leaf this great being now free from influxes released a slight smile on his face.

A tree goddess, living at the entrance of the cave and having witnessed what had happened, sung, on thi occasion, the following verses:

“I worship thee o holy man, I worship thee o best of all,

Who terminated influx free, is worthy now of every gift!”

After singing those verses she addressed him, saying: “Dear Sir, a holy monk like yourself can offer an elder lady a way to free herself from suffering, if you give her an opportunity for generosity.” The elder then got up from his seat, and opened the door to his cave. He looked at the sun and recognized the time as being morning. He took bowl and upper robe and left for the village.

Her daughter had prepared the meal in the meantime and was very excited. Many times she thought that the brother had come and she got up from her seat only to find out that he still had not arrived. When the elder arrived at her door, she took his bowl, filled his alms bowl with the delicious meal and placed it in his hands. The elder thanked her, saying: “May you be well and happy!” and left. For quite some time she stood there, watching him leave.

“Somehow the skin of our elder seems to be brighter today then before, his complexion was so fair, his face and demeanor radiated like a young palm fruit…”

When her mother returned from the work in the forest, she asked her daughter: “Did your brother come?” Her daughter told her what she had seen. Hearing this the Upasika knew: “Today certainly my son has fulfilled his duty for which he went into homelessness” and said to her daugther: “Happy, my dear, is our brother in the teachings of the Buddha, not dissatisfied.”

AN Commy. PTS p. 2.59 as well as MN Commy. PTS p. 1.294

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Continuing on where i stopped the other day, i was amazed to see the interpretation of the next line of the Sutta Nipata by our alleged Mahakaccayana:

‘‘Paññā ceva sati ca,

Nāmarūpañca mārisa;

Etaṃ me puṭṭho pabrūhi, katthetaṃ uparujjhatī’’ti.

‘‘Yametaṃ pañhaṃ apucchi, ajita taṃ vadāmi te;

Yattha nāmañca rūpañca, asesaṃ uparujjhati;

Viññāṇassa nirodhena, etthetaṃ uparujjhatī’’ti. (see Snip for a translation)

Ayaṃ pañhe anusandhiṃ pucchati. Anusandhiṃ pucchanto kiṃ pucchati? Anupādisesaṃ nibbānadhātuṃ

This question was raised in allusion. To which alludes this question? To the nibbana state without residual clinging.

Of course, after clarifying which role mindfulness and “knowing” (paññā) play in the day to day life of an insight meditator or enlightened being the question comes up what happens if even these things vanish?

Paññā and sati are still part of some mental activity going on and it is here that the Buddha says, well, you are right Ajita, name-and-form will cease to be if consciousness ceases to be.

Mahakaccayana expounding on this verse rightfully and excitingly refers to the “Anupādisesaṃ nibbānadhātuṃ” the nibbanic state without residual clinging. Nowadays this term is usually interpreted as some beyond-life nibbana (paradise/realm) but – as Ven. Nyanananda points out in a couple of his Nibbana sermons, that does not make much sense and in fact this type of “element” or “state” refers to the meditative attainment an arahant can enter even during his life – (which, at his death, eventually will lead to no rebirth).

While talking about this the Netti brings up two words: Dassanabhumi and Bhavanabhumi. Plane of seeing and plane of development. Down the road those two terms are explained to mean a stream winner (dassanabhumi) and the rest of the enlightened ones (bhavanabhumi). So, the thing which sets the stream enterer apart from both the common folk (puthujjana) without training and also from those with higher attainments is the fact that he had this first initial realization in form of “seeing”. “Seeing things as they are, you might say. Seeing the rising and falling very clearly. And the lasting effect of this “breakthrough in thoughtless self-observation”. The transformation in his case, or better the special ability distinguishing him from everyone below that “rank” is his ability to “see” what is going on.

Of course that power of real-time seeing how his six senses operate did not come for free. It involved a process of insight meditation – maybe even for months, years or life-times. Nevertheless i was curious and did a search on this term, as it seemed not to be part of the sutta-vocabulary, and i just wanted to make sure where else this term was used in the pitaka.

And guess what the results of this search were? Yes, only Petakopadesa and Nettipakarana use these terms.

Both books are really so close in terms of content discussed and style of presentation. IMHO they read like “notes” someone took while listening to Ven. Mahakaccayana teaching and explaining the Buddha’s teachings to the lay people and monks in Avanti- and then of course they “suffered” being handed down over two or three centuries in an “unauthorized” fashion before being admitted to the Pali Canon and frozen in their current state. Together with the Patisambhidamagga and maybe Milindapanha they give a pretty good second angle on the early suttas and discourses of the Buddha and that is probably why Buddhaghosa rests so strongly on them when he edited his Visuddhimagga and the commentaries…

Anyway, looking up the parallel topic in the Petakopadesa (PTS, pp. 135) this little jewel differentiated those 4 stages of enlightenment even further. Hold on, this is very exciting (at least for me):

So, the thing which differentiates every yet “unenlightened person” from what the stream-enterer is, is a “seeing”. One could say, the thing most noticeable for a sotapanna would thus be his newly gained ability to “see” what is going on…something those not sharing this stage can only “wonder” about but not really experience, well, obviously, because they need to go through the same process of realization.

Now, what would the once returner come up with as the most noticeable description of him realizing the second stage. According to the meditation-knowledge captured and handed down by the petakopadesa the once-returner would say:”Hey, wow, this (emotions of greed and hate) has become less” (Tanubhūmi) – the stage of lessening.

What is next? Again continuing with insight meditation, going through the nyanas, at some point the next realization would among other things make the Anagami say something like: “Wow, greed and hatred are completely gone. No trace of them left” (Vītarāgabhūmi). So, this would really distinguish the Anagami from an once returner. Can we imagine how such a mental state would “feel like”? Well, only if we probably reach to that stage.

The final Arahant level of spheres where one is destined to live one’s last life is summarized in the term katābhūmi. So the Arahant gained this special extra knowledge that he “is done” (kata). He knows it. No second guessing. Like the Stream-enterer “sees it” the Arahant simply “knows that he is done”. We might think that such a knowledge is just interfered or conceptualized…but even the stage of a stream-enterer already seems to be – although so close – so far away at the same time.

Think of someone climbing up a hill. He comes back and talks about a certain cliff he stood on and “seeing”/”looking at” our most beautiful valley. Well, there you are, sitting in the same valley he talks about, but you never went up that hill, you have absolutely no clue of what he is talking about, you can only imagine it, because once you climbed on top of your roof – but that was the highest point your attachment let you get away from your dear home.

Then comes the second guy talking about an even higher cliff where the atmosphere becomes “so thin”. Now you and number one wonder what that person is talking about. But while you still wonder, another guy comes along who went even further up the mountain, where there is only ice and he could not even see the valley any longer, the clouds making everything below him look just serene and peaceful. And eventually all of them meet the last wanderer, who climbed on top of that mountain and tells them about reaching and standing there on a mountain peak. Of course, there might be such a thing, you wonder, but how does he know that there is no higher path leading up? Well, how should he explain, that standing on that top, you simply know: “this is the top”.

So, anyway, apologizing for this crude simile, but the nice “keywords” only found in the Netti and Petakopadesa describing those four stages of enlightenment seem to portrait them in a very valuable and experiential manner, adding additional insight into the suttas.

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Caveat: This post is probably very boring for most of you. However, if you manage to read it, you might a.)get a clearer picture what anusayā (‘latent tendencies’) are and b.)see how one can arrive at filling pali terms with meaning and ‘life’ by using context search and relating the findings to ones own meditation practice. So, this is more like a journal entry than an article. Skip it, if you like.

Today studying the Nettipakarana (trying to figure out whether it is older than the Petakopadesa. Not really, on a second thought, trying to figure out which of the two is more relevant with regard to actual practice…both seem to have either had a common work they were based on…but looking at the magnificent memorization of the rest of the suttas, i can only think that their original work was something handed down besides the main texts in a more sloppy way…if you ask me, this may have been the instructions given by Ven. Mahakaccayana himself, who resided in Avanti during Buddhas time and based lots of his instructions on the Parayana and Atthakavagga of the Sutta Nipata…I am thinking that his pupils may have memorized some of his remarks and teachings and handed them down separately…being remote as they were from the heartlands of originating Buddhism. But after 100 years or so this text may have had “suffered” a couple of alternate versions, being not as authorized like Ven. Ananandas first council version. Think of the episode of that monk who heard about the council but preferred to just stick to what he himself had heard from the Buddha…no need to try tracing this text to some Mahayana source…they may well have had copies of these versions too…). So, studying the Netti i came across this passage:

‘‘Yāni sotāni lokasmiṃ, [ajitāti bhagavā,]

Sati tesaṃ nivāraṇaṃ;

Sotānaṃ saṃvaraṃ brūmi, paññāyete pidhīyare’’ti.

Paññāya anusayā pahīyanti, anusayesu pahīnesu pariyuṭṭhānā pahīyanti. Kissa [tassa (sī.)], anusayassa pahīnattā? Taṃ yathā khandhavantassa rukkhassa anavasesamūluddharaṇe kate pupphaphalapallavaṅkurasantati samucchinnā bhavati. Evaṃ anusayesu pahīnesu pariyuṭṭhānasantati samucchinnā bhavati pidahitā paṭicchannā. Kena? Paññāya. Tenāha bhagavā ‘‘paññāyete pidhīyare’’ti.

Kāyagatāya satiyā bhāvitāya bahulīkatāya cakkhu nāviñchati manāpikesu rūpesu, amanāpikesu na paṭihaññati, sotaṃ…pe… ghānaṃ… jivhā… kāyo… mano nāviñchati manāpikesu dhammesu, amanāpikesu na paṭihaññati. Kena kāraṇena? Saṃvutanivāritattā indriyānaṃ. Kena te saṃvutanivāritā? Satiārakkhena. Tenāha bhagavā – ‘‘sati tesaṃ nivāraṇa’’nti.

The verse is of course from the Sutta Nipata, Ajitas question to the Buddha. Like most of the Parayana very relevant to practice. This one is interesting because it talks about sati (mindfulness) just keeping the sense doors under control and then talking about panna, which is supposed to finish the job.

I guess if this is really from Mahakaccayana, he would not cite the suttas in the Samyutta where they talk about him how he uses the parayana for instructions. You would rather think that this Netti or Petakopadesa IS (part) of the instructions he used to give to the newly converted Buddhists in Avanti. Have to check this on reading more of both books.

Anyhow the “Kāyagatāya satiyā” part can easily be traced to the Salayatana in the Samyutta. Interesting though: not the exact same wording there:

Evameva kho, bhikkhave, yassa kassaci bhikkhuno kāyagatāsati bhāvitā bahulīkatā, taṃ cakkhu nāviñchati manāpiyesu rūpesu, amanāpiyā rūpā nappaṭikūlā honti…pe… jivhā nāviñchati manāpiyesu rasesu…pe… mano nāviñchati manāpiyesu dhammesu, amanāpiyā dhammā nappaṭikūlā honti. Evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, saṃvaro hoti.

So, either there existed different wordings of this discourse of the Buddha at the time the Netti was compiled, or Mahakaccayana had a different memory. Semantically the same meaning..Its like you hear someone talking about “he is not repelled by” and you remember it as “he is not pulled back from” unappealing sense impressions…

But i was even more interested in the former part about paññā. It says that through paññā (usually rendered as ‘wisdom’) the anusayā vanish. If they vanish, then the grasp-arounds of your mind will vanish. pariyutthana meaning something like posessed by. Like when you are in a rage or long after something and ‘completely forget yourself’ …that is why, looking up pariyutthana in the tipitaka i found most explanations in commentaries giving kilesa (defilements) as a synonym. If you are taken over by a reaction usual that results in negative impulses like greed, conceit, malice, discontent etc. etc. Lots of thoughts.

It says that if the anusayas are destroyed (pahiyanti…fading away) you will never ‘forget yourself’ again. Then it gives the simile of a tree. The tree destroyed, all flower, fruits etc. the whole continuation (are you are frequent reader of this blog. if so, you may see a connection here with the last post) is without grounds and will cease to exist.

Then comes the fun part: How? kissa? Answer: paññā.

Well, thinking: paññā, the verb is pajānāti, used very very often in describing the noting process “iti pajnatāi” – in terms of vipassana, labeling something as imperment and seeing it that way. What if the translation of simply ‘wisdom’ does not carry this connotation? How about ‘Knowing’. The ability to just “know” clearly what is going on…at any time. Hm, worth a separate posting.

So, there is this anusaya still, difficult strange word. You can sense its experiential origin. Literal meaning is something like the “following or lying after” depending on which translation you go with. Its connotations are usually that of some inherent tendency, thus modern translations as “latent tendency”.

Looking up “anusayā pahīyanti” i wonder. Hm, except for a few cryptic passages in the AN mostly commentarial works taking this pair up. Looking at the AN passage i find this:

Puna caparaṃ, āvuso, bhikkhu samathavipassanaṃ yuganaddhaṃ bhāveti. Tassa samathavipassanaṃ yuganaddhaṃ bhāvayato maggo sañjāyati. So taṃ maggaṃ āsevati bhāveti bahulīkaroti. Tassa taṃ maggaṃ āsevato bhāvayato bahulīkaroto saṃyojanāni pahīyanti, anusayā byantīhonti.

Well, this passage is quite known. One of the few talking in samathavipassana terms. We have to look at the commentarial explanation on this one in another post! Has a beautiful vipassana practice description for a commentary. But i was under the impression that anusayā appears more often. So another search on this term. Lets get the context straight:

anusayā … 779 occurances, in 56 books.

Okay, that is enough. The term is well established, all over the place, even just looking at the plural. So definitely used by the Buddha in one form or the other himself. Lets try to get a clearer picture of its meaning. After all, if this “drys up” through “knowing” we will not get into states of “bewilderment” anymore where some series of thoughts would have power and sway over the “knowing” ability of the mind as developed by progress in insight meditation. DN:

Satta anusayā kāmarāgānusayo, paṭighānusayo, diṭṭhānusayo, vicikicchānusayo, mānānusayo, bhavarāgānusayo, avijjānusayo

Next came the samyojanas…in the list. Not the first time. They really seem to belong together…So here is the list of “latent tendencies” which we “follow after” that will lead to a mental obsession. Sensual desire, repelling, views (opinions), doubt (insecurity), ego (conceit), desire to exist (to be) and lack of knowledge (of raise and fall).

So, can you think of anything which could possession of you if these 7 guys are missing? Can we envision a mind with such a strong faculty of “always knowing” that it will not be trapped by those? Okay, that would mean to envision the mind of an arahant…

Looking for more descriptions of anusaya:

‘‘Kathaṃ nu kho…pe… anusayā samugghātaṃ gacchantī’’ti? ‘‘Cakkhuṃ kho, bhikkhu, anattato jānato passato anusayā samugghātaṃ gacchanti…pe… sotaṃ… ghānaṃ… jivhaṃ… kāyaṃ… manaṃ… dhamme… manoviññāṇaṃ… manosamphassaṃ… yampidaṃ manosamphassapaccayā uppajjati vedayitaṃ sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā tampi anattato jānato passato anusayā samugghātaṃ gacchanti. Evaṃ kho, bhikkhu, jānato evaṃ passato anusayā samugghātaṃ gacchantī’’ti. Sattamaṃ

Hey! The SN supports Ven. Kaccayanas definition of panna solving the problem. Nice triangulation. So here it is the seeing of emptiness in the six sense realm that leads to the desctruction of anusayas. Panna is here to be identified as “tampi anattato jānato passato”. It says that the anusayā will go to their destruction “samugghātaṃ gacchanti”.

And the next search for anusaya turns this up. Very nice too:

Cha, bhikkhave, ānisaṃse sampassamānena alameva bhikkhunā sabbasaṅkhāresu anodhiṃ karitvā dukkhasaññaṃ upaṭṭhāpetuṃ. Katame cha? ‘Sabbasaṅkhāresu ca me nibbidasaññā paccupaṭṭhitā bhavissati, seyyathāpi ukkhittāsike vadhake. Sabbalokā ca me mano vuṭṭhahissati, nibbāne ca santadassāvī bhavissāmi, anusayā ca me samugghātaṃ gacchissanti [gacchanti (pī. ka.)], kiccakārī ca bhavissāmi, satthā ca me pariciṇṇo bhavissati mettāvatāyā’ti.

Very descriptive of a meditation process. Do you see how it uses “sampassamānena” to see completely the advantage in. How does he “see”. He uses / repeats a reflection in direct speech. This would be a further addon to our iti and sallakkheti post. And here “Sabbalokā ca me mano vuṭṭhahissati” – these are descriptions of some of the results of his insight meditation. And also “kiccakārī” – done what i was supposed to do…do my duty. 🙂 . Look at the post of “as a Buddhist. why meditate”. Dhamma as the raft not a Venice on the waters.

But when reading something like this:

‘‘Sukhāya kho, āvuso visākha, vedanāya rāgānusayo anuseti, dukkhāya vedanāya paṭighānusayo anuseti, adukkhamasukhāya vedanāya avijjānusayo anusetī’’ti.

What follows a pleasant feeling after each sense impression (on which they are based)? You would not say what “tends latent after each pleasant feeling”. Or would you? No, it is simplicity which makes the suttas so convincing…their talking about real experiences people had 2550 years ago…their discoveries.

So here we would then say that desire follows (anu-s-eti) a pleasant feeling, or: a pleasant feeling is followed by a desire-following. 😉 . Thats what it is. So the “anusayas” are “followings” (lit. go after). What follows rudimentary feelings of pleasant and unpleasantness. Some are followed by lust, others by rejection, others by doubt, others by opinions…

If that is not the case in the case of an arahant is mind is doing what exactly? Just experiencing seeing, hearing, … thinking? Experiencing the feelings. Period. Nothing which follows that.

Next search turns up Malunkyaputta sutta in MN. The simile of the baby having no anusayas. This is subtle but it seems the Buddha stresses the point that the baby would still “follow after” if it had such concepts like person, or views etc. So it is that running after whatever presents itself to the mind after experiencing a pleasant or unpleasant sense impression which even the baby has. That is why it will cry when it falls, bewailing its lost pacifier etc etc. The baby like the old deluded cannot “see” what happens to them in a real-time fashion, which separates them from the ariyans. Note: even in this context Buddha uses pariyutthena.

This gives us another great view on the topic:

‘‘Cakkhuñca, bhikkhave, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā uppajjati vedayitaṃ sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā. So sukhāya vedanāya phuṭṭho samāno abhinandati abhivadati ajjhosāya tiṭṭhati. Tassa rāgānusayo anuseti. Dukkhāya vedanāya phuṭṭho samāno socati kilamati paridevati urattāḷiṃ kandati sammohaṃ āpajjati. Tassa paṭighānusayo anuseti. Adukkhamasukhāya vedanāya phuṭṭho samāno tassā vedanāya samudayañca atthaṅgamañca assādañca ādīnavañca nissaraṇañca yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti. Tassa avijjānusayo anuseti. So vata, bhikkhave, sukhāya vedanāya rāgānusayaṃ appahāya dukkhāya vedanāya paṭighānusayaṃ appaṭivinodetvā adukkhamasukhāya vedanāya avijjānusayaṃ asamūhanitvā avijjaṃ appahāya vijjaṃ anuppādetvā diṭṭheva dhamme dukkhassantakaro bhavissatīti – netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati.

So here we have the whole series. A form aligns with the see-faculty and see-consciousness in what is called “contact”. A feeling arises which if pleasant may be followed by a number of affirmative reactions. This is the “raganusayo” the “follow after of desire”. So anusayo works as a placeholder for positive or negative reactions and unawareness in case of neutral feelings.

So why not then call this “follow” something like planning and thinking about the sense experience one had. Have a look at the next search result and be “positively surprised”:

‘‘No ce, bhikkhave, ceteti no ce pakappeti, atha ce anuseti, ārammaṇametaṃ hoti viññāṇassa ṭhitiyā. Ārammaṇe sati patiṭṭhā viññāṇassa hoti. Tasmiṃ patiṭṭhite viññāṇe virūḷhe āyatiṃ punabbhavābhinibbatti hoti. Āyatiṃ punabbhavābhinibbattiyā sati āyatiṃ jātijarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.

This passage from the Nidanavagga in SN shows that “follow” is really something more subtle than just thinking about. You experience a pleasant feeling eating ice cream. Now usually this may result in lots of thoughts and planning: How much more, when was the last time, how do the others like this…etc.” But this passage says, even if your mind would be withouth thoughts…there may still be a “following after”. Which is what? It is like the surge of the mind running after or emphasizing those sense impressions which this pleasant or unpleasant feeling derives from. All following sense impressions seem to come into a “special spotlight”. Not just awareness or attention, but they are sought after. So we might even translate as “seeking after” instead of “following”. Or probably just “following”, thus denoting some kind of silent but perceivable effort/wish/drag of the mind “to continue with it” (be it negative or positive).

So the arahant is like the tree in the winter forest, experiencing the drops of snow flakes unmovable but as they come and the rest of us are like kids, sometimes standing there and experiencing them like the tree but most of the time chasing one or the other which caught our special attention.

Summing up: Reading the tipitaka in context rather than book after book can definitely enhance understanding. You would be able to do the same without a computer, of course, if you would memorize the tipitaka by heart, like in the ancient days..or some monks these days.

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Thinking about karma (pali: kamma), many people entertain a popular notion that your past bad and good karma is similar to a bag pack which you carry with you. On occasion the understanding of kamma also comes pretty close to some kind of retribution system.

Faced with the question how kamma is passed on from life to life if there is no soul carrying a basket of good and bad deeds many wondered how to get a better understanding of what karma is.

After all, kamma seems to be such a good way of explaining all kinds of inequalities in life: The beauty and the ugly, the rich and the poor, the dumb and the smart, the short and long lived…it makes so much more sense, if we introduce a natural moral law and let cause and effect do the work they do elsewhere pretty reliably.

In the Milindapanha, the Western (Greek) schooled king Menandros (yes, ‘Western’ Theravada is quite old and started in India 🙂 ) had his own hard time understanding karma and asked the Buddhist monk Ven. Nagasena this question:

8. Rājā āha ‘‘bhante nāgasena, iminā nāmarūpena kammaṃ kataṃ kusalaṃ vā akusalaṃ vā, kuhiṃ tāni kammāni tiṭṭhantī’’ti? ‘‘Anubandheyyuṃ kho, mahārāja, tāni kammāni chāyāva anapāyinī’’ti [anupāyinīti (ka.)]. ‘‘Sakkā pana, bhante, tāni kammāni dassetuṃ ‘idha vā idha vā tāni kammāni tiṭṭhantī’’’ti? ‘‘Na sakkā, mahārāja, tāni kammāni dassetuṃ ‘idha vā idha vā tāni kammāni tiṭṭhantī’’’ti. ‘‘Opammaṃ karohī’’ti.

The king said: “Bhante Nagasena, these deeds – wholesome or unwholesome – which are done by this name and form, where do they stay?” – “They are bound after, o great king, those deeds, they follow one like a shadow.” – “But can one, Bhante, point out those deeds, saying: ‘Here or there do these deeds exist’? ” – “One cannot, o great king, point out those deeds, saying: ‘Here or there do these deeds exist'” – “Give me an example”.

Especially remarkable is Ven. Nagasenas answer:

‘‘Taṃ kiṃ maññasi, mahārāja, yānimāni rukkhāni anibbattaphalāni, sakkā tesaṃ phalāni dassetuṃ ‘idha vā idha vā tāni phalāni tiṭṭhantī’’’ti. ‘‘Na hi, bhante’’ti. ‘‘Evameva kho, mahārāja, abbocchinnāya santatiyā na sakkā tāni kammāni dassetuṃ ‘idha vā idha vā tāni kammāni tiṭṭhantī’ti.

‘‘Kallosi, bhante nāgasenā’’ti. (Milindapanha, PTS 72)

“What do you think, o great king, of all those trees around here which do not yet bear fruits: can one point them out, saying: ‘Here or there do these fruits exist?’ – ‘Of course not, Bhante’. – In exact the same way, o great king, it is through an unbroken continuation that one cannot point out those deeds, saying: ‘Here or there do these deeds exist'”.

Let us try to build on this answer with a rather modern but amazingly fitting simile: The stock market. For this i would like you to have a look at the chart below, which displays an actual stock chart with its typical ups and downs – distributed among larger trendlines:

Now according to Venerable Nagasena, kamma is something like an built-in (genetic) program. He compares it to the process of growing fruits – which yet do not exist, but are pre-programmed to develop.

Having a look at the stock chart, we might even compare it to the built-in movements a stock price is subjected to while at the same time gravitating towards levels of support, shrinking from levels of resistence and overall following stronger trends.

Without going into details, let us think of an unwholesome deed based on evil intentions as creating a downward inclination. Now the foundation for a bear market has been laid, the foundation for more evil and unwholesome sense impressions to flood into our life and a falling price resembles each moment of life, a series of transactions, a series of rises and falls of sense impressions – but their general trend has now been established by this karmic intention and is pointing largely in one direction: downwards.

Within this large trend (say we killed someone for very mean reasons) there will definitely be moments of upward movements as well. Sometimes it may even look as if the bad karma done has no impact (yet), our life seems to go up for a while. However, this is just based on some other prior positive trends – like a stock price our life will hardly ever move in straight lines. So many past impressions and intentions left their imprints like ripples and waves on a lake.

But to stay with the simile: There is always an expectation to come back to former levels or grounds. Our overall morality seems not to have suffered right away even after maybe a very unwholesome deed, but this one big breach, this setting the downward trend, eventually, was so strong, that it will drag the price down. In this or the next life (depending on past conditions, depending on each and every next step).

Now the fascinating thing with this comparison, is the fact, that if you zoom in and look at the individual transactions between buyers and sellers, you cannot “see” the big trend in each sale – as you cannot see the big trends in each moment of your life, in the moments of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling, thinking. But the trend itself cannot exist without those individual moments either.

It is this inherent quality, inherent inclination which the simile given by Ven. Nagasena so nicely captures. Also, looking at our stock chart, we can see such an inherent power of trends. They are based on individual moments, but they are not individual moments. No individual sale carries a “bag” of the minor and larger trends it is part of and yet…it is a part of and creates those trends.

So, in each good life and bad life lived, there are smaller and larger trends. We could say then, that in our current life we enjoy a series of uninterrupted transactions within and without, by seeing, hearing etc. and our intention in each single case is like a little plus or a little minus. Sometimes, like in a real world stock movement, there are those shocking sales…we transgress the five precepts (sila) pointed out by the Buddha and thus set something in motion which we should better have stayed away from.

But it also tells us, that regardless how bad the current situation might look like, it is never to late to start with a change in trend. And even if our “wholesome” rallies may just be short lived…the more we do good, definitely, the further up our price will go:

Māvamaññetha puññassa, “Na mantaṃ āgamissati.”
Udabindunipātena udakumbhopi pūrati.
Dhīro pūrati puññassa, thokaṃ thokampi ācinaṃ.
Audio: http://pariyatti.com/downloads/dwob/dhammapada_9_122.mp3

Think not lightly of good, saying, “It will not come to me.”
Drop by drop is the water pot filled.
Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little,
fills himself with good.

Dhammapada 9.122
http://tipitaka.org/romn/cscd/s0502m.mul8.xml#para122

Take a look at the following video. If you never saw real-time stock price movement, this post may sound strange at first. Compare the chart in the upper left in the following video to a “karmic” lifeline and compare the lower right table to the flickering of sense impressions in each moment of life (it is an actual buy and sell window of shares in real-time; comes pretty close to the activity going on in our six sense world, doesn’ it?)

Note: What about the karmic activity of Arahants? Think of companies who are so boring (no news) that the volume of transactions dries up, the buyers and sellers leave the stock alone, its price chart soon resembles the EKG of a corpse and eventually the company declares bankruptcy. Sounds a bit negative? Well, Samsara is action and excitement, lots of ups and downs. Nibbana is peace. Like samsara – the stock market could not “exist” if it was not for its inherent impermanence, tension and soullessness (mechanicalness).

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In the context of liberating wisdom the Buddha frequently employs a term called “yathabhuta” when describing the practice of insight meditation.

Usually this term is translated as “as it really is”. So, a passage like this:

Sāvatthinidānaṃ. ‘‘Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Vedanā anattā… saññā anattā… saṅkhārā anattā… viññāṇaṃ anattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Evaṃ passaṃ…pe… nāparaṃ itthattāyāti pajānātī’’ti. Chaṭṭhaṃ.

…is usually translated as:

I heard thus. At one time the Blessed One was living in the monastery offered by Anathapindika in Jeta’s grove in Savatthi. From there the Blessed One addressed the monks: Monks, matter [sic] lacks self, that which lacks self is not mine it is not I or my self. This should be seen as it really is, with right wisdom. – Feelings – perceptions – Intentions – Consciousness is not self. – Monks, the noble disciple seeing it thus turns from matter, turns from feelings, turns from perceptions, turns from intentions, and turns from consciousness. Turning, [he] is calmed and released. Knowledge arises: I am released; birth is destroyed, the holy life is lived to the end, and I know there is nothing more to wish.’ SN 21. 1. 2. 6.

The above paragraph, of which the Khandha and Salayatana chapter of the SN are filled with (in various variations, interspersed by similes and explanations) are vipassana meditation instructions. But, do we realize that when reading English (or other translations) of those passages? Can you discover a clear meditation instruction in the English paragraph above?

The paragraph starts out with an instruction (see the sentence in italics above) and continues to apply the same kind of instruction to either of the 5 groups of grasping or, in case of the Salayatana chapter of the Samyutta Nikaya, to the six sense impressions. In both instances the description makes it clear that whatever experience arises to the meditator it has to be dealt with in the way the instruction outlines.

Finally in the last part of the above paragraph, the result is mentioned. It is a short form of the elaborate 16 stages of insight knowledge culminating in the realization of nibbana.

Let us have a closer look at this instruction part and -at the same time- give an alternative (more literal) translation:

Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ

Whatever is void of self of that (think): “This is not mine. This am i not. This is not my self.” So is this as soon as it/as far as it has become (come into existance) (yathābhūtaṃ) to be seen (daṭṭhabbaṃ ) with right/correct wisdom.

A couple of observations. daṭṭhabbaṃ or ‘to be seen’ does literally mean what it says: looking. There is only one way to see these things, and that is in a meditative session/environment. The verb does not say “think” or “conceptualize” or “reflect” or “analyse” and you will attain to Nibbana. No, it clearly says that you have to see these phenomena in a certain fashion, with right wisdom.

Now, even “right wisdom” would be an empty phrase if we do not know how we should see them in our meditation. Well, we don’t have to look far, everything is right in front of us, explained in this little paragraph. However, and that is the special point of this posting, the simple non-literal translation of “yathabhuta” with “as it really is” does not help in the context of meditation. It is not completely wrong either, but if we go word for word and consider some other facts, the meaning behind yathabhuta is even more powerful. The problem here is, that the listener at Buddha’s time was very well aware of the literal meaning of those terms. He was able to grasp from this and the context the “instruction” part. He may have even applied the instruction at the same time of hearing the discourse spoken. No wonder then, that many suttas tell us about attainments of Nibbana while listening to such words. But, back to our text:

Literally then, yathā means:

Yathā (adv.) [fr. ya˚; Vedic yathā; cp. kathā, tathā] as, like, in relation to, after (the manner of).

More important though, take a look at other examples where the word is used:

  • yathā kāmam (as far as his liking goes) according to his liking

  • yathā kālam (as far as the time) in time, timely

  • yath’ āgato tathā — gato as he came, thus he went

Bhūtaṃ is simply the past perfect of being, meaning “become”. Have a look at the PED’s definition:

Bhūta [pp. of bhavati, Vedic etc. bhūta] grown, become; born, produced; nature as the result of becoming.

So, what does this term stand for? “as born“, “as far as become“?! He should see things as far as they were born? “What the heck does that mean?” – We can almost hear that question raised by the translators of pali texts…How can you see something as born?

Well, it took quite some time and effort to dig out the ancient meditation techniques of Theravada, and it just happened recently, some 50 years ago and it is mainly the Burmese Sangha who deserves our compliments for this re-establishment of vipassana practice in Theravada.

Of course, in the course of vipassana, to see phenomena like feeling, form, perception, mental preparations and consciousness as “This is not mine” [tag it!] AS (SOON/FAR) as they arise or as soon as they are born makes complete and utter sense. We are reminded of the Bahiya sutta, where the Buddha says, “by the seen, just the seen”, or this (and many other similar) beautiful verses:

Uddhaṃ, tiriyaṃ apācinaṃ,
yāvatā jagato gati
samavekkhitā va dhammānaṃ
khandhānaṃ udayabbayaṃ.
Audio: http://pariyatti.com/downloads/dwob/itivuttaka_4_111.mp3

Above, across or back again,
wherever the wakeful went
let him carefully observe
the rise and fall of compounded things.

Itivuttaka 4.111
http://tipitaka.org/romn/cscd/s0504m.mul3.xml#para111

But such an observation and thus translation and choice of words is hard for someone who was never experienced a vipassana meditation or similar instruction. So now, we live with Western translations and go for vipassana retreats and some ask: “Why did not the Buddha give this kind of instruction in the Suttas?”

The right answer is: Well, he did! In fact, overwhelmingly many texts talk in this direct way, but it might need another generation of pali translators to uncover them. We find many instances with variations of this basic technique of using labels to stop short the mind at bare awareness and thus by slowing the movie allowing a very deep look into the mind.

In fact, we might even learn more and derive more details for current vipassana meditation instructions if we take a look at the Pali texts from this very literal and meditation-related point of view.

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This posting, in a way, continues the discussion on whether there can be craving for Nibbana.

We concluded that there well can be such a desire which is more like a motivation for the goal and the craving for Nibbana would eventually subside on the path towards the goal (or more specific: when the raft is close to the other shore, the meditator has to leave even the boat.

In sankharupekkha (a stage in insight meditation), noting of phenomena is so refined, that even thoughts and shadows of “I”, “mine” as well as notions on the path and practice itself have to be given up. However, the boat has to get there somehow and a lot of paddling is necessary.)

Having said that, from a Mahayana perspective this seems wrong and we mentioned that modern day Buddhism’s answer to that question resembles more a Mahayana understanding of the path towards enlightenment (Tenor: Nibbana is so far away, lets stick with compassion – that is easier).

Taking up for discussion just one such source for this mainstream understanding let us try to “tackle” the great grand Lankavatara Sutra, the “foundation of Zen”. This will be hard for me to do, as you know from other posts, because of my “attachment” towards ZEN’s simplicity and no-nonsense focus on the practice of the path :-). But rest asured, this post will have a happy ending.

Now, lets have a look at this passage from the Lankavatara Sutra:

The Bhagava replied: The world where love grows, i. e., the desire for sexual embrace, showing itself in beating, slapping, suggesting, kissing, embracing, smelling, looking-sidewise, or gazing may give one momentary pleasures but is productive of future grief. [With the Stream-entered] there is no greed for such. Why? Because they are abiding in the bliss of the Samadhi which they have attained. Hence this casting aside, but not of the desire for Nirvana….

If you look up the stages a vipassana practicing person is going through you will find out that, at the very end, even duality between an I here and a world out there will vanish. Until up to that moment (see Bahiya’s Bodhi) lots of effort, determination and wisdom is necessary to get to such a subtle point. Here the Lankavatara wants to make the reader believe that a “Stream-enterer” abiding in his samadhi of realizing nibbana (“phala samapatti/attainment of the fruit” or “animitta cetovimutti/objectless freedom of mind”) still harbors a desire.

With other words: Craving for words this text implies that the one who went beyond craving for words still craves for words.

LOL. 🙂

It is like two athletes. One runs and reaches the goal. The second one does not run. When he hears the first one saying he reached the goal the first one says: you are not there yet! Because if you can still talk about the goal you must be looking at it, ergo still be in front of it, ergo not behind the finish line. Now we all know, that one can cross the finish line and talk about it – maybe not at the same time 🙂

Mahamati, here in these paths and abodes of existence they give out varieties of teachings which are based on discrimination; [relating to Theravada] that is to say, as they are above such things as the attainment of the fruit, the Dhyanas, the Dhyana-practisers, or subjects for meditation, and as they know that this world is no more than what is seen of the Mind itself, they discourse on the fruit attained [for the sake of all beings]. Further, Mahamati, if the Stream-entered should think.”These are the fetters, but I am disengaged from them, ” they commit a double fault: they still hold to the vices of the ego, and they have not freed themselves from the fetters.

You may want to read the last paragraph again: It expresses a very modern notion in Buddhism, i.e. that you cannot talk about Nibbana in technical terms like “phala samapatti” (or attainment of the fruit) because then you use language, so you are discriminating, so you are bound by samsara, thus you cannot be enlightened. If you ever wondered why the ZEN masters prefer to clap on your back instead of talk about the details of the fourth jhana, now you know why.

But did not the Buddha himself come up with this unique “system” where a gradual development is possible up to the point where discrimination is done away with? Why not talk about the path up to that moment? Well, i guess this is a very fundamental difference between Mahayana/ZEN and Theravada. The latter, in the spirit of the Buddha, presents a scientific program for salvation, whereas, for the mystic, this sounds like a sacrilege.

A different “point of view” on the matter of fetters for the stream enter would probably look like this.

Further, Mahamati, in order to go beyond the Dhyanas, the immeasurables, and the formless world, the signs of this visible world which is Mind itself should be discarded. The Samapatti leading to the extinction of thought and sensation does not enable one to transcend the world of particulars, for there is nothing but Mind. So it is said:

176. The Dhyanas, the immeasurables, the formless, the Samadhis, and the complete extinction of thought (nirodha)–these do not exist where the Mind alone is.

177. The fruit of the Stream-entered, and that of the Once-returning, and that of the Never-returning, and Arhatship–these are the bewildered states of mind. [wow, Mahayana and Theravada were not friends in those days, it seems :-)] (1)

178. The Dhyana-practiser, the Dhyana, the subject for it, the destruction, the seeing of the truth, –these are no more than discriminations; when this is recognised there is emancipation. [well, this is true. but then that is exactly what the terms “stream-enterer…arahant” stand for :-). seems like the pali canon or at least a deeper understanding of it had been lost when the lankavatara sutra was written]

The strange thing is, that the Lankavatara Sutra which brought about Bodhidharma and Zen does, in many instances, gets it right, down to the core:

But none of these views are logical, and none are acceptable to the wise
  • They all conceive Nirvana dualistically and in some causal connection

  • These people believe that they discriminate Nirvana, but where there is no rising and no disappearing, there can be no discrimination

  • The only result in these discriminations is that the mind wanders and becomes more and more confused — because Nirvana cannot be found by mental searching {here}

Maybe in those days many monks and lay people ran around claiming to be stream enterer whose explanations of their attainment where not really in accordance with what was perceived to be Nibbana in the early days as described in the suttas. Maybe the study of the early suttas had declined or they were only available in Sri Lanka at that time, the Sanskrit version of the pali canon always lack some comprehensiveness in comparison to the Theravada Tipitaka.

Another reason – much more in respect towards the effort undertaken by the Lankavatara may be the opposite: What if there was so much theoretical speculation and discussion that someone wanted to radically stress the point that ultimately you would have to let go even of these terms? Well, as in many other areas of expertise, some things you only understand when you are ready to understand.

But then again, if just one smart and devout person in that day and age would get back to practice and work on himself, he probably felt very disillusioned with contemporary Buddhism and, not being able to relate to the texts or text understanding of his time started writing something which he believed stressed the important -practical- points. The last point to overcome. Unfortunately those who came later started venerating this insight and showed disregard to the 90% of practice leading up to this sphere.

Now i personally think that it was not really a proper thing to put those words into the mouth of the Buddha who clearly did not speak the Lankavatara nor any other of the Mahayana Sutras, but at least we can appreciate the effort and the fact, that the Pali Canon finally survived and is more accessible than ever before. In fact, if you are looking for similar topics and texts taking you to the edge of language, thought and understanding, i recommend reading the Salayatana and Khandha Samyutta. And in real ZEN manner, they are – unlike the Lankavatara Sutra – refreshingly clear and to the point.

So, what do we learn from this? Maybe that the Mahayana foundation of ZEN re-invented Buddhism? As i said, this post has a happy ending:

“A tangle inside, a tangle outside,
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, O Gotama,
Who can disentangle this tangle?”

Buddha:
“A man established on virtue, wise,
Developing the mind and wisdom,
A bhikkhu ardent and discreet:
He can disentangle this tangle.

Those for whom lust and hatred
Along with ignorance have been expunged,
The arahants with taints destroyed:
For them the tangle is disentangled.

Where name-and-form ceases,
Stops without remainder,
And also impingement and perception of form:
It is here this tangle is cut.

Samyutta Nikaya I:23

 

(1) srotāpattiphalaṁ caiva sakṛdāgāminastathā | anāgāmiphalaṁ caiva arhattvaṁ cittavibhramaḥ || 175 ||

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If you drive back from a peaceful mountain region to the busy town you can reflect on all the milestonesSerenity and passing sights either while you drive or when you are back home.

Now of course watching the scenery while driving is usually not recommended. It may very well be outright dangerous to look back while driving on a highway. If you do that at all, you would have to do that very quickly. But you can.

The safer approach of course is reflecting on your passage long time afterwards, when you are home, sitting on your sofa with a cup of tea. But then of course the journey is long gone and not everything is as fresh in your memory as it was during the trip when you just “saw” it.

The Suttas and Visuddhimagga tell us about the ability to “look back” (pacca-vekkhati), look over our shoulders, so to speak, when practicing meditation, especially the jhanas.

As mentioned in an earlier post, for the beginner it is quite hard to come into deep states of concentration but especially for the intermediate meditator with one or two years of consistent practice it is sometimes challenging to just stumble over absorptions but not to know where they come from or how to locate them “at will”. Mastery of the jhanas is nothing else than the ability to plunge into any of those concentrated states by will, at any time. But how to get there?

One very important foundation is of course the proper understanding of one’s own meditation object, and practice. What is supposed to happen if i concentrate on one object and what exactly do i have to do? A good meditation teacher will answer those questions precisely and render this post unnecessary. So it is for those meditating in Alaska who have no one to ask 🙂

At the very beginning a proper understanding of vitakka and vicara is necessary. They stand for what the meditator is trying to archieve: He is trying to bind his wandering mind to one object…and one object only.

Any diviation is a loss in concentration. Maybe not a complete break up but nevertheless a loss a diminuation. According to the simile the Buddha gave with regard to the six animals each longing towards a different realm the meditator’s object is like the pole in the middle on which the six animals are bound by a rope and around which they will circle and eventually calm down.

However, just having a pole won’t keep the animals away from roaming around. They will simply drag the pole with them. The pole needs to go into the earth. Deep inside.

Here comes vitakka and vicara to our rescue. Vitakka is the thought which resembles a hammer and drives the pole, for instance “light”, “light”, “light” down into the ground. Each repetition of “light”, “light” is another blow with the hammer prolonging the steadiness of the object – in this case the perception of light.

But we are not to mindlessly recite a mantra here. We want clarity and gain concentration so that we can induce this whenever we like. As mentioned above – we are looking for mastery.

Therefore, lets try to understand vicara, the second jhanic factor. Vicara is like the resonance after the hammer hit the pole. It is the movement into the ground, the resonance of a bell hit by a stick.

If you think “loving kindness”, “loving kindness” …now pause for a moment and watch your mind. The “being on the topic” just after you think such a concentrated thought (vitakka) dwelling on the object of your concentration (“the feeling/perception of kindness towards all”) is what vicara (“moving about”) is all about.

Soon, if these two factors are established piti, or joy, will follow in due course. This is like a very natural law: The mind, subdued and calmed by one calming thought and focusing on one object/color/feeling/perception (depending on what your meditation subject is. If it is loving kindness it will more be a feeling. if it is breathing, it will be the feeling of the breathing, if it is light, it will be the perception of light) …a mind thus steadied will experience joy because of a reduction in sense impressions.

So the only task at hand for you seeking the entrance into the first of the four jhanas is establishing a repeated focused thought like “loving kindness” and a “mental listening” or “close thoughtless observation” or “dwelling and gliding on” the aftermath after striking the bell with this meditative thought. The longer you can hold your mind gliding on this resonance the quicker you will establish vitakka and vicara. Having established those two, piti will come in quickly.

So far so good. How does the method of pacca-vekkhati or “looking back” come into play here, helping us to master states of absorption?

Giving it a modern name, we would probably call it “tagging”. The purpose of pacca-vekkhati is a tagging and labeling of our actual experience. That way the mind establishes signposts and it will be easier and easier to repeat and identify an experience.

Think of someone doing samatha meditation like a person stumbling through a stretch of forest. In theEntering the forest middle of the forest runs a straight clear clean and beautiful path. But this path is – initially – very small and hard to find. Now the person might start entering the forest from many different sides but wherever it enters (whatever the subject of meditation is) in the beginning it will be hard for that person to even come across this path.

Most of the time the person enters the forest, soon is lost by all the trees and bushes stopping his advance into the forest and he turns in circles and after a while gives up and leaves the forest.

However, once in a while, this person would – by chance – stumble over this clear clean beautiful trail. Standing there, it looks around and says: “Wow, this is a beautiful trail”. But his dwelling on this path and walking along is only for a very short time. For one, because this trail is not very wide in the beginning and as soon as he looses track he finds himself again surrounded by trees and lost.

What will help this person to find this trail more often and stay on it for longer periods of time? Tagging!

Path in the forestA boy scouts first resort to finding his way to and fro in any unknown place is to leave markers and waysigns. In the same manner a meditator desiring to master the jhana has to make use of paccavekkhana or “looking back” and has to “tag” those factors which make up the individual jhanas. That way he will not only find the track quicker, more easily but also widen the path and thus deepen his experience allowing the jhana factors to become much stronger.

Now, how do we do the tagging of such faint mental things like jhana factors? The most difficult part for you will be to identify what is what. If you know, what is what, you are almost there. Knowing what is what is like seeing a glimmer of the path through the canopy and trunks of trees.

Let’s do this for the first jhana together and you try to tag the jhana factors of the remaining 3 jhana as an excercise on your own.

These are the five factors of the first jhana:

vitakka (thought)

vicara (gliding/resonance)

piti (joy)

sukha (happiness, comfortableness)

upekkha (equanimity, deep serenity)

Traditionally in each sucessive jhana the factors are reduced. So that the

2nd jhana has only piti, sukha, upekkha. The 3rd has sukha, upekkha. And the 4th only upekkha.

Now with regard to the first jhana, the thought which we use to set up the pole with can be any concise mentioning of the topic like “earth, earth” or “loving kindness”. Do not mix this up with mental chatter about your meditation topic. We use one thought to substitute all others. So go on repeating this thought. Then, once in a while think: “This is vitakka”. Now, doing this reflection/looking back/paccavekkhana you have to be careful like the driver looking back on the road. You temporarily diminish your concentration by letting in a “stray thought”. That is fine as long as you do not loose control over your vehicle and crash into other cars, piling up a heap of thoughts: this would mean losing your concentration. But, if you just, once in a while, internally “tag” what you experience then that will be no problem at all, even beneficial – because now your mind knows what to look for.

Next step: Repeating this vitakka is just the first step to pull yourself closer to a concentrated mind. Now you add the following task: After each repetition of the thought take close attention to the “state of your mind” directly after thinking the thought for instance “loving kindness” … the gliding/flapping of your wings or resonance that thought leaves…if you think you identified it, tag it, thinking: “This is vicara”.

Now repeat those two tags…But not constantly…just once in a while. As if you would check on the way you take through the forest not to stray off to far.

Once you established vitakka and vicara the joy will not be far away. As we said in the beginning, it is given, a natural law, that the mind will feel joyous once the calmness of vitakka and vicara laid the foundation.

A note beside: Sukha and Upekkha in the first jhana kind of hide behind the first three factors which are very dominant at first. The progression of the jhanas is a progress in refinement. As the gross factors will diminish the finer onces will gain strength. But that is something you might like to find out by yourself.

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Imagine a person, hovering over the water surrounded by an endless ocean stretching in all directions.Eternal DancerAs you come closer, you realize that this person does not really hover over the water.

In fact, it is falling towards the water. Now imagine, that magically a stone would emerge out of the water and thus prevent the falling person to touch even the water.

But, tragically, this stone, as soon as the person touches its surface, will immediately start to submerge again.

Our fictitious survivor, seeing how this stone which came to his rescue is going under – out of fear for the vast black darkness – jumps away from the stone.

He jumped away from the first stone whose shape he can hardly see, so quickly did it go under in the ocean. But our jumping “dancer” is rescued by another stone which also came out of the water, just in time! But this one too, as soon as he touches it, looses height and dives back into the water. So he seems thus forced to continuously jump between 6 stones which come and go, arranged in a circle around him.

He never knows which one comes next but develops such a skill – it seems – that he can stay above the darkness of the ocean underneath, not getting wet. Unfortunately he is forced to continue jumping, in order not to go under. Speaking of distress!

After a time, this person will forget about those six stones and start watching its own artistry in the combinations and dance – rhythms which appear because of the endless alternation of jumps between those six stepping stones.

One day this restless dancer, jumping for his life and in order to keep up the brittle equilibrium, decides to have a closer look and wants to better understand his own situation. He takes his attention away from the fancy figures and artistic jump-patterns back to where the feet meet the stones.

Deep insight reveals to him not only his precarious situation: Each of the resting places which he bases his entire existence on is constantly falling away from him. There is no way he could rest – he is also forced to go on with this eternal chase if he wants to keep himself above the water – to keep “being” (alive).

Besides this impermanence in each step, there is also the strange emptiness surrounding of this whole process. Wherever his feet turn to, there is a stepping stone. But wherever his feet step on, it is just one of those six boring gray stones, coming out of the water.

It seems to him now that only their combinations made up his fancy exciting world. But with the newly gained sharp observation he is completely taken aback: What seemed so rich and entertaining is not just outright falling apart with each step, but also completely uninteresting, boring … crazy.

As a dispassion and disenchantment sets in where the dancer tries to observe for longer and longer periods the rising and falling of the steps which keep him in existence, he wonders where to find an exit. But nowhere in this fast ocean is any exit in sight. Because, whatever he thinks: that will be one of the stones. Whatever he turns to: will be one of the stones. Whatever he sees, that will be another stone. Whatever he feels: that will be yet another.

So even though he can see with his observation how he is caught in this jumping frenzy he cannot find any way out…but wait!

There comes the moment where our eternal dancer is so entirely fed up with the constant run for life that “he decides” from one moment to the other to give it all up. Yes! That is the only escape there is. But can he make this “decision” to stop? Any thought or volition is in fact a stepping on a stone. To stop jumping – even if it would mean losing everything he knows he must be more than willing to sacrifice it all – even if it would mean that he will then go under. He faces the final battle the hardest of all (Dhp. 103).

Though intentionally he might not be able to get away from his dancing addiction the long and steady close observation of reality will eventually result in a giving up. And in that moment where the eternal dancer does not take up the next step he touches the water and it all ceases, like the flame on a stick, cooled down, Nibbana. The whole dance disappears like a dream.

What happens next, you might ask? We look back in the middle of the ocean and see our dancer still jumping.

Oh? Wasn’t the whole tragic theater gone for a moment? Wasn’t he lost in the ocean, gone out of existence? Hard to tell? The jumper only knows the jumping stones, cannot know of any other object except six stones above the water.

However, what happened maybe this: It seems that the fast spin of his movements whirled him around as he touched the water (“entered the stream”). Though this experienceless experience was there, how could he know about it?

Now he finds himself again jumping from one stone to the other. But he first realizes that there is something wrong with his jumping. Something changed. Did not he observe his footsteps?

The grip of his feet on the stones seem less strong and heavy than before. His dancing became refined, light, almost heavenly. Less fear of falling, knowing that the cooling beyond is peace sublime. This makes his dance almost become a sport now, knowing: i have nothing to loose, if i loose everything.

There could be said much more about our dancer. Lets finish this post off with saying, that eventually even the whirling spin will stop, because of his steps getting lighter and lighter. Very soon he will touch the water the last time. But now he knows that he does not have to fear it:

Awaiting the final peace, he smiles…

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The most difficult part in insight meditation is to realize that your mind always takes a stand. Otherwise it could not exist.

If you see, you took a stand on

a sight, a see-sensing, a seeing, a see-feeling

If you hear…smell…taste…touch…

and especially and most subtle: if you “think” there was already a taking a stand on. right now, gotcha….gotcha….gotcha!

a thought, a think-sensing, a thinking, a think-feeling – all in one moment, moment after moment…endlessly.

What do we mean by “to take a stand on”?

Right now, you watch a computer screen or a paper. A sequence of sights, sights, sights (the letters on the paper) sound, sound (surrounding sounds) and thought, thought (thinking of thoughts written in this text) appear with an amazing speed and unbelievable force.

What do they force?

They force you to “be” them. “What we possess that possesses us, what we catch, that caught us”.

Now, you might mistake tanha or “thirst” for some kind of emotion or craving like “I like this text”… or very well “i don’t like this text”.

But no, this is not what the Buddha meant by craving in this context!. Those thought-chains are already many many moments of individual thought-moments each of which are connected by a deep deep unsatiable thirst for life, for being, for continuity: tanha bhavanettika, as the Buddha defined, “a thirst leading to being” – it does not mean a connection of lives for rebirth. You do not need to remember past lives or look into the future to understand the Buddha’s teaching. No, it is shockingly much closer to you. Directly under your nose, in your eye, in your ear, between your thoughts. Each and every moment. It is so close that you cannot see it. Because for one, it is very fast…and there is no ordinary way for you to “see” and “directly witness” what is going on under your nose. Secondly, in order to “live” your mind needs to group and perceive heaps where there is just bubbles popping in and out of existence. How, do you think, could you walk, if you did not.

Now, if this number of thoughts which we usually tend to think about as “craving, longing” are not what the Buddha meant when he spoke about tanha, or thirst, what are they instead? You could flat and simply call them “mental defilements”… or emotions…kilesa. And the Buddha did talk about them too, but more so in the context of morality and initial mental training.

As an insight meditator, we need to go deeper, have to be careful, not to get stuck there. We might be very happy to be able to see how the mind acts and reacts as a whole. We might think: “Wow, now i see the craving in me. This is what the Buddha was talking about. Let me try to empty myself and avoid this”.

The trouble is…while we have such thoughts and entertain them, we are again taking a stand, holding on to moment after moment of sense impressions…all in the realm of thought this time, but nevertheless. We look for the movement of a train, but we ignore, at the same time, the movement of the wheels.

As soon as we are we – by necessity – take a stand on something. On a sight, a sound…a thought. There cannot be any being (bhava) if there was no prior upadana, or taking up. So the English term “grasping” might be misleading. It is not “grasping” of a number of thoughts labeled as “emotions” or “feelings” or “observations” = all of which are coarse, because they in themself mean that we did already “took on” or “identified in” 200+ sense impressions.

Now, bear with me, and have a look at this description found in a meditation instruction:

And right after that, there’s the thoughts about it. So, when you’re letting go of the thoughts about that feeling, you’re letting go of the clinging to it. When you open up and let go and allow that feeling to float, just like it’s a bubble in the air, and then relax that tightness in your head, in your mind, you’ve let go of the craving. Now you start to see this as a true process. There’s nothing personal about it. It’s just an arising, and passing away of different phenomena, That’s all it is. And this is a continual process of opening and relaxing, opening and relaxing, opening and relaxing, why? Because then you’re able to recognize more easily, when your mind starts to grab on to something, when the mind starts to close down around something, when it starts identifying so heavily with things, when it gets that emotional hold on it. That’s what the craving really is. It’s an emotional hold: “I like it. I don’t like it.”

Question to you: If you are simply given 6 building blocks to chose from – and not one more, and you have to translate the above statement into an uninterrupted series of six sense impressions, how many moments can you identify in which the meditator did not see the arising and falling of those objects but instead identified with them, explaining this “identification” of his even as meditative practice? There is a comedy in the tragedy.

I hope you can see or “imagine” where this is going. Even me, now, “i am” holding from one moment to the next onto sense contact experiences, racing along, while i write this text, while i type: think, think, think, see, see, hear, think, feel…

What if we were to “give up” the holding onto any of those appearing and disappearing sense impressions?

Buddha says: ” upādānapaccayā bhavo – Based on holding on to is being”.

So, you give up the holding and there will be no being. Would you “know about it”. No, because that entails at least one moment of thought-consciousness. Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw interestingly speaks about this moment of “forgetting”. You could also call it the deathlessness. Where there is nothing held onto which can appear or disappear, there is not death.

Now, we don’t need to go overboard in a fancy abhidhamma-like classifications of mind-moments in order to understand what is happening here. The Buddha said “world, world, o monks. The six sense spheres, this o monks is called the world.”

Think about it 😉

There is an alignment between a form, a sense-faculty, a see-ing and in the moment of their going together a positive/negative/neutral feeling accompanies the sense impression. Can you really point them out into separate objects? Ask venerable Nagasena and he will tell you no. This is just one moment. We can point out flavors in this moment, but experentially, it is one of those six sense spheres being active moment after moment.

The conditions of nama-rupa (name and form) with vinnyana (consciousness) come together and give rise to feeling. That is it. No need for any intellectual enumeration of abstract mental atoms, which, funny, in itself is in fact just a mere generation of never-ending thoughts after thoughts this time thinking about the Dhamma. Instead of being seen with right attention they lead to the manufacturing of books. Does this help to lead others from the not-knowing of this process to the knowing of how this magic show of the consciousness works? Well, it may, but those lengthy explanations are less precise and clear cut as Buddha’s direct and simply instructions in the suttas which usually ends in a direct indication of how to practice and realize for oneself. I am currently doing the same. Noted.

Now, be that as it may, the danger an abhidhamma scholast faces with regard to his own practice of awakening to the workings of the magic show of consciousness are real. And insight meditation is a process of refinement, where – with the right tools – one discovers subtler and subtler stuff which the mind is taking a stand on and completely identifying with, so that we do not even know, that we are grasping.

Here, at this stage, even the thought about grasping is a moment of “grasping” based on a thought moment which made us “to be” in this moment. If you don’t believe this try it a couple of seconds for yourself. Ask yourself: why made you one moment stop watching youself and follow past memories or any distracting thought? Try to watch your mind for a moment…you will very very quickly be gone finding yourself taking up, “being”, “following” other sensory information. Your “attention” is brutally swept away by this storm of grasping in each moment. This is why in insight meditation, as well as in samatha meditation, the intentional use of one thought will make all the difference.

Now there is this subtle subtle inclination, the thirst, which in this moment makes us grasp the next thought or sense moment. Thus tanha is bhavanetti: It leads to ‘be’.

The Buddha tells us, that if we work our way down with such a thorough attention (yoniso manasikaro), trying to “face” any object with equanimity (Q: how many moments, do you think, might one miss, while thinking: “i have to face any object appearing in front of me”?) we will eventually reduce tanha and get to a point where this very very dispassionate pure attending to EVERYTHING coming (even thoughts about our meditation) will lead to a cessation in thirsting for the “next”.

“taṇhānirodhā upādānanirodho, upādānanirodhā bhavanirodho.” MN 9. etc.

“Bhavanirodho nibbānaṃ” AN 10. Anisamsavaggo

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Or: What does sankhara mean?

There is quite a deal of confusion regarding this important Buddhist term

some of the translations run as follows

  • volitional formations
  • mental formations
  • fabrications, etc. etc.

However, a translation for sankhara is quite easy 🙂 Have a look at the follwoing simile given by the venerable Nagasena in the “Questions of King Menandros”:

“Also just as, your majesty, some man or other might prepare ghee, fresh butter, oil, honey and sugar into one (drink) and drink it himself, and make others drink it, then he and the others would be happy. {Milindapanha, II. 3. 11}

‘‘Yathā vā pana, mahārāja, kocideva puriso sappinavanītatelamadhuphāṇitaṃ ekajjhaṃ abhisaṅkharitvā attanā ca piveyya, pare ca pāyeyya, so attanā sukhito bhaveyya, parepi sukhitā bhaveyyuṃ.

From this simile it is clear that sankharas could very well be translated as ‘preparations’. But, i hear you ask: “What the heck, are ‘mental preparations’. And how do ‘preparations’ relate to Buddha’s teaching”?.

Well, in our modern day and age we would use the following terms instead: (mental) “planning / opinionating / decision making / speculating /preparing to do something” – it is our thought machine going on in our minds moment after moment after moment… creating a force which results in actions and in results of those actions.

An example: We take in a sound of a bird and immediately have preparing thoughts like “I love the song of this bird”. “I like to see it”. “Where is this sound coming from?” etc etc. These preparations, eventually, will lead to new moments of existence … this is how preparations prepare us to experience even more new sense impressions once we started moving our head to see the bird a whole new series of sense impressions and resulting sankharas will arise and move us forward. This, in effect, is watching kamma and vipaka in action 😉

If you look at the 5 upadanakhandha which, according to Buddha, completely summarize our “world” experience you find the term sankhara in the correct spot, if you keep our simile of listening to the bird in mind:

form (“the sound”) -> is the basis for -> feelings (“positive”) is the basis for -> perception (“melodious”) -> is the basis for the mental commentaries going on in our mind – and consciousness, number 5 of the 5 groups of grasping / fueling is the counterpart for this to occur, to “be known” – very much in terms of the mirror.

Eventually this moment of experience will lead to new moments of sight-, sound- etc. thought-objects, feelings, perceptions and consciousness. So the sankharas are the preparation part, the part, where the foundation for the “next moment(s)” is laid.

In the case of the non-meditator this mental preparing for each next step in the world leads to a next barrage of sense impressions and moments of “being” on which we take our stand (upadana))

In the case of the meditator the mental preparations are slowly but surely subdued to a mere tagging, labeling. Noting “impermanence” is a preparation as well (even a meditator keen on insight, has to work with what is there already), but its direction is not towards proliferation of our experience but towards a minimizing of preparations/mental commentating/planning through the use of a simple “label”. Giving up (pajahati) whatever arises.

The tool used to achieve this is attention (manasikaro).

Usually attention is working to enlarge the chatting and opinionizing and preparing of the mind, insomuch as our moment to moment attention is drawn towards the content of the scenes of our experience: Not noting how the world appears but rather enjoying, ‘being”, the movie. This is what the Buddha calls an “ayoniso manasikaro” or an attention which does not look at the roots (its own roots).

Now, the meditator trains his mind using yoniso manasikaro, or an attention which goes back at the root (yoniso…lit. “wombly” meaning thoroughly, completely, going to the source). So instead of watching the movie which our senses present it means applying attention to the inner works of the mind, attending to the rise of fall in seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking.

That way, slowly but surely, the forms are seen, as they arise and fall, the feelings are seen, as they arise and fall, the perceptions are witnessed, as they arise and fall, the preparations are seen as they arise and fall and eventually the consciousness is seen as it arises and falls away.

This gradual step-back towards the source is made possible by sankharas in a novel, very subdued and tag like way, which allows attention to use the power of names (the power of nama-rupa) to get away from lengthy stretches of rolling identified (tam-mayata) in thoughts, sights, sounds etc. It replaces the in the movie “What a beautiful sunset” -like sense movie with a simple tagging of the individual frames “Seeing, seeing” or “impermanent, impermanent” etc…

Now, this is going to be so boring for the mind 🙂 not right away, there are all kinds of stages we go through, say the elders, but eventually dispassion sets in, disenchantment.

Seeing that the movie is in reality a framed show, the “fun appeal” (nandiraga) towards those sense impressions will subside, thirst will at one moment stop, the mind will stop taking a stand on some other object, and as the mind does not take a stand, does not take up (upadana) there will be no connection between the moments of being (bhava) and existence with its smaller and larger sequence of birth and death, sorrow and suffering will cease. And they call this: “bhavanirodho nibbanam”.

While doing so, thorough attention (yoniso manasikaro) brings knowledge to a place which was formerly wrapped in ignorance.

What does the Buddha mean with avijja – ignorance or vijja – knowledge? It is this un-covering of how the mind operates through the eye-witness of deep attention. We develop knowledge of how the movie itself is generated. By this we slowly but surely gain understanding of something which was so close to us, but which we never were able to see.

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